Oct 21 2009

A Serious Man

Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each others’ reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible. The newest Coen brothers movie, A Serious Man, is in theaters now. Benn and James were so excited about it, that they got an early jump on its release. You’ll find that this is one of our most in depth reviews yet, as there’s a lot of meat to talk about with this film.

A Serious Man
Year: 2009
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind
Genre: Drama, Comedy (Dark Comedy)

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

Ethan and Joel Coen have somehow found a way to cheat the system. They manage to make brilliant, artistic, films, and still have sizable budgets and bring in tickets. While their latest film, A Serious Man, may be the result of a trade-off (the brothers agreed to make Burn After Reading, a lighter film full of stars, and in return they get to make whatever the hell they want with whoever the hell they want immediately afterward), it’s still impressive that this film was ever made in the first place. But thank goodness it was, because it has so much to offer and embodies so many of the Coen Brothers’ best qualities.

A Serious Man is about Larry Gopnik, a man in a 1967 Midwestern Jewish community who’s tried to build up what he considers a normal but successful life and begins to see it all fall apart. This may seem like a slim description of the story, but as far as plot goes there are certainly more specifics but not a lot more in terms of complexities. This is not a movie driven by its plot. It’s a movie driven primarily by its themes, and secondarily by its characters. If you haven’t seen the trailer for this film yet, it does a magnificent job of telling you everything you need to know, while simultaneously avoiding ruining anything. Not only that, but it is a work of art in itself and I highly recommend watching it. Trailer aside, this is a movie who’s story doesn’t give you all the answers, but will certainly give you a lot to think about. Many will likely be frustrated by its ending, and I myself found myself just sitting with my jaw open for several minutes not knowing what to make of it, but when you give the film some thought, it really does provide everything that needs to be said.

Throughout the film, the question uttered by the main character the most is “Why?” Why does he deserve the troubles that he’s experienced when he’s done so little to earn them? He’s a person who was content with the little life he’d built, and didn’t seem to want to reach for anything more, and yet he feels punished nonetheless. The question of why God would make these crises happen is quite central to the many conflicts of the film, and most audience members may find themselves wondering the same things as they exit the theater. Are the events of this film a result of cause and effect? Quite possibly, and there’s a lot of evidence to support this theory, but there may be an equal amount of evidence that they are simply a result of complete and utter chaos.

One of the things I look for most in a movie and its screenplay is conflict. It is the center of all drama, and it’s really what makes a movie interesting and exciting. While skimming the surface of my description, and even a more detailed synopsis, one might think that there is not a lot of conflict in this film. They’d be wrong. This movie is ripe with conflict. The main character is facing dilemmas on all sides. He’s fighting off an unhappy wife, her new partner in a devilishly kind Sy Abelman, problems at work including an exchange student so unhappy with his grade he’s willing to bribe and sue just to get what he wants, amongst many, many other things. The chaos in his life is exemplified all at once every time Larry steps into his home, where his wife greets him with a “Have you seen a lawyer yet,” both his children assault him with opposing problems, and his brother is lost in his own world full of its own chaos. During many of his conversations in which he tries to deal with one problem, you can hear another problem building in the other room. With the movie’s two hours, it manages to pack in as many problems and conflicts as can possibly fit, and it does them two at a time.

With all of these problems, it would be easy for this movie to get bogged down in misery. And there is misery aplenty, although much of it comes in the most personal and touching ways. But still, this is a surprisingly funny piece when it comes down to it. Watching Larry try to cope with it all makes you laugh. As I’ve said before, comedy most often derives from either wish fulfillment or greatest fear. Last time I mentioned this principal it was because the movie embodied wish fulfillment. This time it is greatest fear. Seeing someone else go through something worse than you’ve ever been through is funny if executed the right way, and while in this case it is a very dry dark way of presenting it, it is still funny if you keep a sharp mind. Many of the best comedic moments come from several dream sequences in which painful or embarrassing experiences can be explored to their more extreme fruition. These dreams provoke a more thoroughly outward laugh than the subtler humor seen throughout the film.

You also get a peek into the more ridiculous aspects of Jewish culture, as the Coen brothers lovingly poke at the community that they themselves grow up in. While some criticize the movie for being “too Jewish,” I find the full exploration of this culture to be one of the film’s greatest strengths. Part of what the Cohens try to explore is the perception that Jews have this self-inflicted misery, and to be fair, it is a part of their traditions to celebrate the miseries of their past. There’s a line in the film about how the Jewish people have millennia worth of story to look back on and take comfort in. Perhaps the comfort they take is that no matter what you are experiencing now, someone has always experienced worse. As
Larry is supposed to take comfort in Moses’ trek through the desert, perhaps the Coen brothers are adding to the repertoire of stories of pain, and allowing their audience to take comfort in the fact that they’re not experiencing it. The end of the film also hints that even Larry’s pains may not be as bad as things can get.

The acting here is dead on. The movie is void of stars, its most recognizable actor is Richard Kind, and he has a relatively small part. This allows us to be introduced to these characters free of preconceptions, and yet the acting does not hurt at all for lack of star power. Michael Stuhlbarg does a fantastic job in the lead role, being subtle and entertaining, and portraying an inner turmoil below the surface. Equally good is Fred Melamed as Sy Abelman, the closest thing to a nemesis Larry has, who manages to seem the kindest person in the film while simultaneously being the most manipulative. The rest of the cast is filled with incredible character actors, the kind that only the Cohen brothers have a knack for finding. Each and every person in the film fully embodies their character, most will make you laugh, and they all manage to seem like real people, despite their ludicrous behaviors and actions.

Credit must also go to the brilliant Roger Deakins. He is the cinematographer on most of the Cohen brothers films, and is largely responsible for the amazing visual artistry present here, and in the rest of their work. In this film, Deakins manages to give a mystique to this small Minnesota town despite its rather ordinary origins. He also makes mundane tasks like watering the lawn seem important, dramatic, holy, or depressing depending on the scene or the viewer. The composition is obviously perfect in every shot, and yet never seems to be showy for the sake of only a visual sense. The drab colors perfectly display Larry’s drab life, further making it seem tragic that Larry can’t even hold on to something that isn’t even that great in the first place. Where he really gets to let loose though is in the dream sequences, where he and the Cohen brothers are allowed to get a little surreal with their visual symbols. In this way, Deakins manages to serve the story first, and yet create something incredibly beautiful at the same time.

This film is not for everyone. It is deep into the realm of the dark comedy. It’s not an easy movie to sit through due to all the torture with which its characters are treated. It doesn’t wrap things up neatly. But it does give you tons to think about, and you could have several hours worth of interesting conversations about the themes herein. But even the film itself is not an unenjoyable experience. I laughed throughout and found that I was really having fun and entranced by everything about the story. The characters are completely unique, the kind that only could come from the mind of the Coen brothers. If you’re a fan of the Coen brothers’ work or dark comedies at all, you will get quite a bit out of this film.

Benn says:

In their latest film, A Serious Man, Joel and Ethan Coen create a film that revolves the complete and utter destruction of a man’s life.  You may not want to watch a man’s profession, family, religious and philosophical grasp on life be mercilessly torn from the seams….unless it was really, really funny.

A Serious Man follows Larry Gopnik (Michael Shuhlberg), a Jewish, Midwestern family man and physics professor at the local university.  Unfortunately, we have caught Larry at a very bad time.  His invalid brother Aurther (Richard Kind) sleeps on the couch and spends most of his time draining a cyst or scribbling esoteric mathematic equations in a notebook.  His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) abruptly and calmly announces that she wants a divorce, and that she is marrying family friend Sal Ableman (Fred Melamed).  His daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) steals cash out of his wallet with the intention of getting a nose job, and his son Danny (Aaron Wolf) deals with his family life by smoking pot at school and apathetic to nearly everything around him.  If that doesn’t sound bad enough, one of Larry’s students bribes and blackmails him for a passing grade in his course, and Larry’s impending tenure hits a snag when the school receives anonymous letters derailing Larry’s character.  Needless to say, Larry is having a no good very bad day, and is trying to hold everything together while figuring out why God has forsaken him so.

The film is a comedy, believe it or not, but it is as black as comedies come.  Like a post-modern re-telling of the Book of Job, the Coens put Larry through places worse than hell for no real reason whatsoever; he is not an immoral or dishonest man, and in no way deserves the downpour of suck that has fallen upon him.  We feel awful for Larry, and watching his unending struggle gets frustrating from time to time, but the tragedies that encompass the film are so awful and so over the top that it becomes absurd, allowing the audience to share Larry’s pain, as well as laugh at it at the same time.

The depiction of the film’s unnamed Midwestern town (presumably somewhere in Minnesota or North Dakota) and its inhabitants border somewhere between caricature and reality, making Larry’s world unsettling and surreal, yet very relatable.  For one, this is the first film I’ve seen that has a sizeable Jewish community not in New York City or Florida.  The whole community feels like a collective fish-out-of-water, making the town feel like Twin Peaks, minus the murderous ghosts and dancing midgets.  The inhabitants themselves function as grotesques, and walk around in just-barely ill-fitting clothing and awkward postures using so much Yiddish slang that even the other Jewish members of the community don’t know what the other is talking about.  There is no doubt that this town is a re-creation of the Coens’ own hometown; a place like this could only be constructed old inhabitants who still hold a disgruntled nostalgia for their roots.

Achieving this kind of balance between surreal interpretation and realistic portrayal is a difficult thing to achieve, and the credit has to go to the actors.  Michael Stuhlberg manages to portray Larry with the greatest of subtleties, and gives an unforgettable performance playing a forgettable man.  There is nothing sinister or questionable about Larry’s character, though he’s not a particularly bold or assertive man either.  Larry’s only real flaw is that he lets others walk all over him, leaving him to be the dumping ground of all the troubles and deceptions people, and life, has to offer.
One of these deceptions comes in the form of Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), Larry’s friend, Larry’s wife’s lover and all around scumbag.  Though a supporting character, Sy is as eloquent and well spoken as he is a slimy, deceitful snake in the grass.  His scenes with Larry are some of the funniest in the Coens’ catalogue of funny scenes.  For example, Sy often comforts Larry with hugs and soft-spoken, fatherly words of wisdom while simultaneously screwing him over, putting Larry at a loss for words or action.  Melamed plays this part perfectly, using his Christopher Lee-esque voice and imposing physical presence to every advantage and takes control of every scene he is in, yet does so in such a sly way that he takes Larry, and the audience, by surprise.

Much of the film revolves around Larry trying to figure out the meaning of his misfortune, and turns to three rabbis for answers as well as seeking out his own questions.  Unlike most films, Larry’s troubles are without any rhyme or reason to speak of, which is a classic Coen Brothers device.  Often accused of being nihilists, the Coen Brothers love to create conflict out of thin air, as if conflicts are just excuses to watch quirky characters react to utter chaos, particularly in their comedies; The Big Lebowski portrayed it’s lead character solving a mystery when there was none, and Burn After Reading involved a multitude of characters caught in a government conspiracy that the government was entirely unaware of.

Granted, the damage done to Larry is very real, but his questions as to “why” are pointless to ponder over, which this is why A Serious Man is so absurd and hysterical from beginning to end.  Watching a man suffer for no apparent reason with no solution to search for is far to ridiculous to take seriously, which could be Larry’s only true sin.  In the Coens’ Midwestern, surreal Brigadoon of causeless torture and defeat, I would suppose that taking things too seriously would be the worst way to live while keeping your sanity intact.

I would assume that the film’s title was not chosen casually; Larry is a serious man in a world that isn’t.  Jefferson Airplane’s single “Somebody to Love” acts as a kind of mantra for the film; it’s opening lyrics say ”When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies…”, which suggests that the “truth” of the world, or at least Larry’s perception of truth, is shattered, revealing the world to be one big meaningless cosmic debacle.  This might sound like a fatalist way to look at the world, and maybe it is, but I suppose it’s all up to one’s perspective.  Rather than panic and play the role of Chicken Little, the Coens’ choose to simply point and laugh at the absurdity that makes up people’s lives and make something out of nothing.  If they were wrong, this film would not have been as funny as it is, and trust me, it is.  If this sounds like a nihilistic or twisted state of mind you may be right, or you just might just be taking yourself  far too seriously.

Benn’s rebuttal:

I have very little, once again, to argue about James’ review, except that I rather enjoyed Burn After Reading, which is different argument altogether.

Although I agree with James that the film isn’t for all tastes, I still urge people to see the film, because it pushes the boundaries of empathy so much that I think it makes everyone laugh, not just those with an affinity for dark comedies.  I would like to mention that while James had his jaw dropped, I was rolling down the aisles howling from beginning to end.

James’ rebuttal:

We agree on most points, but I’d say that Benn’s statement that there is no reason to ponder the “whys” of the film is wrong.  I feel a lot of the film is meant to ponder just this thing.  There’s no easy answers to this question though.  What’s most frustrating for us and the character is that he doesn’t reach for anything greater, he “didn’t do anythying.”  Perhaps the Coens are saying that his lack of reaching for something better is what’s doing him in.  Also, you do start to see some cause and effect come into play towards the end.

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